I can’t help being a fiend for anything inspired by the life of Bruce Lee. He is what The Abbott (RZA of the Wu-tang Clan) would consider a minor prophet, a visionary leader, and teacher in the same vein as Martin Luther King Jr. or Steve Jobs. So when I heard there was a play about my idol I was beyond elated. I was fucking ecstatic.
David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu focuses on Lee’s American experience in the west coast before his rise to stardom. Most of what has been said and written about Lee’s life in the States-working in Ruby Chow’s(#beenazn #restaurantlife), opening up his own school and teaching kung fu, and being cast as Kato in The Green Hornet are artistically translated into this play.
Despite the awkward and hilarious Asian accent that is reminiscent of YouTube personality Peter Chao, Cole Horibe brings out the cocky and restless Lee that is determined to change the game in America. In his way stands his father, Hoi-Chuen (brilliantly played by Francis Jue who speaks his lines with a less conscious trace of an Asian accent), whose presence on stage serves as Lee’s conscience. He appears abruptly in flashback moments to Lee’s childhood in the bay area of Hong Kong and he’s omnipresent when Lee is faced with crucial decisions in the U.S. There is constant bickering due to agitation between the old school mentality of Hoi-Chuen and a young, forward-thinking Lee who understands the world is for his taking. It also becomes clear, Lee does not give a fuck about his ethnicity holding him back. Seeing this battle performed by Horibe and Jue was real.
During Linda (played by Phoebe Strole) and Lee’s first date at a little vintage canteen, he tells her about his ‘stomping ground’ days in Hong Kong. Immediately the stage lights are dim to jade green, little lanterns drop down from the ceiling, and a gang of six performers (led by the gang leader who is played by Ari Loeb) descend upon Lee. A scrap is about to ensue and Strole hurries off to stage right to wait out the scene. It’s a dynamic transition that feels subtle and keeps the play flowing from flashbacks to the present.
In that same scene, Loeb shouts angrily at Lee “Dill Lay Low Mo!” While nobody else caught that, I had to laugh out loud as if I was in on a joke. Hearing Loeb swearing in perfect Cantonese made my night at Signature Theatre. If y’all are wondering, lets just say that it’s not nice to talk shit about Lee’s mom. Without a warning, the fight pops off. Horibe takes down the first performer that lunges at him in a Bruce Leesque fashion: one hit, one kill. Much of the fight scenes on stage are dramatically choreographed to appear as dance, however the movements do not shy away from incorporating some actual brawl in the mix. Even Horibe had to refrain from hurting his fellow performers and minimize his commitment to certain fight techniques:
“When I’m doing these fights, the impulse is to really kick through the target, and a lot of times, I use too much force and I have to tell myself, ‘Relax, think of it as a dance move.’ ” [via nytimes]
I wondered why Hwang titled his play Kung Fu and not something more specific or biographical to his main subject. Most of the first act is on Lee’s rise to fame as Kato, a role that he despises because he knows he’s more than sidekick material. But the second act turns the focus on his downfall in the U.S. At the start of the second act, Hwang recreates an interpretation of Lee’s pitch for a television series entitled The Warrior about a Shaolin monk that travels in the Wild West to right the wrongs with his kung fu. I think Hwang wrote this scene in as a nod to Lee challenging the image of Asian Americans at the time. Unfortunately the television executives were close minded and couldn’t see an Asian portrayed as a hero. They jack his pitch and rename it Kung Fu, casting David Carradine (RIP) as the lead role.
I read about this account many times before and because I hold Lee in the highest esteem, I thought that he would brush this shady shit off his shoulders and say ‘fuck you’ to the television execs. But I was wrong. Horibe’s portrayal of Lee’s emotional reaction was amazing because I have never seen the more human side before. And the fact that I was sitting three rows from the stage, it was even more intimate. Had me almost shed a tear. Okay, I shed a tear.
Kung fu as we all know it is commonly referred to Chinese martial arts. But as a stand alone term kung fu literally means achieving excellence through boundless perseverance. For Lee, it was the trials and tribulations that he endured that make his kung fu still relevant today.
Words by Al